How David Healy and his heroes sealed a special night for Linfield with Europa League win
Linfield 3 FK Sutjeska 2 (Linfield won 5-3 on aggregate)
History makers and heroes. Take a bow David Healy and the Linfield players. They have made it to the play-off round of the Europa League.
The Blues are now just one step away from the group stages of the competition where the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Sevilla, Lazio and Roma lie in wait.
It has been a remarkable run in Europe for Healy's men and if what occurred at Windsor Park last night is anything to go by they aren't finished yet.
The home side were magnificent with Shane Lavery the star of a stunning show. Matthew Clarke wasn't far behind him.
Linfield kicked-off their third qualifying round return leg contest against FK Sutjeska leading 2-1 from the opening 90 minutes of the tie in Montenegro.
By the time the final whistle blew they'd won 3-2 on a memorable night and 5-3 on aggregate courtesy of goals from Mark Stafford, Lavery and Clarke.
It means that for the first time since 1966 the Blues have won two European ties in succession. Back then, overcoming Aris (Luxembourg) and Valerengen (Norway) was enough to reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup where CSKA Sofia knocked them out.
This time, 53 years on, defeating HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands and Sutjeska earns them a meeting with Qarabag. The team from Azerbaijan were knocked out of the Champions League last night by Cypriot outfit Apoel.
It's not just glory at stake. The finances are huge. Linfield have earned £1.275m already. With massive cash incentives for winning or drawing group games as well as mega-money for qualifying for the group phase, the Windsor outfit could bring in around £4m.
Courtesy of Kirk Millar's double and a superb team performance in Montenegro, Linfield didn't need a victory in last night's second leg. A draw would have been enough. Even a 1-0 defeat would have seen the Irish League side through.
Healy's team selections have been inspired throughout the Europa League and his latest one was fascinating, sticking with the same starting XI that won last week and leaving big hitters like Jimmy Callacher, Andy Waterworth and Jordan Stewart on the bench.
There was a crackling atmosphere inside the stadium. The place erupted in the seventh minute when the Blues took the lead through a thumping Stafford header. Millar's corner was on the money and the determined defender powered the ball into the net. What a start for Linfield and what a moment for Stafford.
Eight minutes later, Sutjeska were level when Damir Kojasevic floated a free-kick into a crowded box and Alexander Sofranac headed past Rohan Ferguson.
On 18 minutes in a breathless opening, Linfield were back in front through livewire Lavery. The Northern Ireland striker has been electric since moving to Windsor and provided a spark when he chased down a long ball and forced Sutjeska goalkeeper Vlado Giljen into an error 30 yards out. The ex-Everton ace gained possession and brilliantly struck the ball past a defender and into the net from long range.
Lavery was proving to be a pain for the visitors. On 36 minutes Aleksandar Sofranac was adjudged to have fouled the forward as he threatened to race clear. The Sutjeska defender was booked having also been cautioned just moments before, amounting to a red card.
What a position for Healy's men to be in heading towards the break with Millar close to making it three before half-time after a cross from Clarke.
All-action Lavery caused more panic for the men from Montenegro early in the second half with his blistering pace and skills.
Sutjeska remained dangerous themselves. On the hour mark Bozovic, booked earlier for diving, was denied by the outstanding reactions of Linfield goalkeeper Ferguson. Sixty seconds later, Bozovic found the net by superbly glancing in a corner.
Suddenly the game was on a knife-edge. Not for the first time the Linfield fans raised the roof to drive on their team. Substitute Joel Cooper responded with sensational wing play to set up Clarke on 75 minutes at the back post for a tap-in. It was a deserved goal for Clarke.
And that was that. Linfield had done it. Wonderful. What a special night for Healy's heroes and history makers.
LINFIELD: Ferguson, Stafford, Hery, Millar (Cooper 67), Lavery (Waterworth 79), Clarke, Fallon, Mulgrew, McGivern, Quinn (Stewart 76), Casement.
Subs not used: Moore, Callacher, Kearns, Mitchell.
FK SUTJESKA: Giljen, Petrovikj, Ciger, Nedic, Kojasevic, Cetkovic, Erakovic (Nikolic 85), Sofranac, Bulatovic, Bozovic (Markovic 73), Vlaisavljevic (Vucic 63).
Subs not used: Licina, Grivic, Bubanja, Marusic.
Man of the Match: Shayne Lavery (Linfield)
Match Rating: 9/10
Referee: Miroslav Zelinka (Cze)